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Performing homeland security within the US immigrant detention system.

Abstract: This paper examines the critical role played by the US immigrant detention and deportation apparatus in the construction of contemporary imaginaries of homeland security. I argue that the detention system works performatively by substantiating a paradoxical relationship between security and insecurity for system employees. Through research conducted in Ecuador with detained migrants' families and deported migrants, I scrutinize the behavior of detention personnel and the experiences of detainees. Data illustrate how the US detention system becomes an integral part of the governmental apparatus behind homeland security imaginaries. First, employees are disciplined through the constant repetition of narratives in which immigrants are immoral and untrustworthy. Second, the detention system is structured in such a way as to require employees to perceive detainees as sources of insecurity, through inconsistent policies, conditions of detention, and high volume and mobility of detainees. Consequently, I contend, employees' interactions with detainees play an important and under-recognized role in performing homeland security imaginaries by perpetuating and reinforcing negative tropes of immigrants as criminalized, dangerous outsiders. The paper contributes to understanding ways in which multiple and overlapping governmentalities work recursively in the country's immigration apparatus, as well as shedding light on the typically opaque detention and deportation process.

Keywords: deportation, detention, governmentality, immigration, performativity, security


For nine months in Cuenca, Ecuador in 2008 and 2009, I volunteered at the municipally run House of the Migrant to assist families of migrants who were detained in the United States. The primary request of families was for information regarding detainees' location, case, and eventual deportation. In my efforts to obtain such information, I called dozens of facilities detaining migrants and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices. In one instance when I called a detention facility, the employee with whom I spoke directed me to call another facility, because "they have the body over there" (research journal, 20 June 2009). Such statements came up repeatedly during the hundreds of phone calls I made--statements indicating that within the US detention system, migrants can become dehumanized "bodies" to be shuttled about, guardedly managed, and dispassionately "removed". Data gathered through interviews with deported Ecuadorians offer further evidence of the constant dehumanization inherent in the detention and deportation process.

This paper scrutinizes this dehumanization of detainees--why it occurs, how it is enacted by system employees and experienced by migrants, and the larger disciplinary work that it does in service of ontologies of insecurity. I argue that the detention system works performatively in support of homeland security imaginaries by substantiating a paradoxical relationship between security and insecurity. At the confluence of pervasive negative narratives of immigration and the typically chaotic operation of the detention system, employees' perceptions of migrants as a source of insecurity are cemented and deepened. These detention center relationships, I suggest, play an important and underrecognized role in performing homeland (in)security, thereby perpetuating and reinforcing negative tropes of immigrants as criminalized, dangerous outsiders. Thus, the intimate operation of the detention system is woven into the fabric of governmentality that cloaks contemporary public and political thinking and discourse surrounding immigration in the United States. By drawing attention to the microscales at which migrant dehumanization occurs, this paper contributes to understanding ways in which multiple and overlapping governmentalities work recursively in the country's immigration apparatus. It also adds to scholarly and activist work on the often obscured modus operandi of the detention system, with a unique emphasis on the role of non-immigrants.

The paper begins with a discussion of the inherently performative nature of the concept of homeland security, with a focus on the constitutive role of the migrant as outsider. The US detention system, now detaining approximately 430000 individuals per year and a central component of the US immigration enforcement apparatus, has expanded alongside the more visible performance of homeland security. Next, the paper explains its methodological grounding, drawing on previous scholarship that has employed ethnographic methods to study the performative role of individual employees in shaping immigration enforcement. Then, I draw on original research conducted in Ecuador to illustrate how the conditions, structures, and discourses of US detention policies and practices--all construing immigrants in particular ways--collectively operate as a process of representation that performs homeland security in ways that discipline behavior both within and beyond the walls of detention facilities. I conclude by considering the transformative potential embedded in microscale changes to everyday practices within the detention system.

The performance of homeland security and the US migrant detention system

This section distills the relationship between contemporary tropes of homeland security and the growing emphasis on migrant detention in US immigration enforcement. I begin by exploring the importance of performance to discourses of homeland security.

The phrase homeland security is a powerful concept in public and political imagination today. The concept of national security (and the need to protect it) has long been invoked as rationale for particular US geopolitical strategies at home and abroad. Indeed, the invocation of security provides policies with an air of untouchability. As Nevins (2008, page 173) notes, "Security in the United States is what some have referred to as a 'God-word'--something universally embraced, and insufficiently questioned--at least among supporters of the status quo." The concept of homeland was introduced into the modern political imagination more recently. While the word 'homeland' was used in government and military forums in the 1990s, it emerged as a popular signifier for the United States in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks as part of the Bush administration's aggressive response (Kaplan, 2003). The fusion of homeland with security has yielded a phrase heavy with meaning that works to govern populations by shaping perceptions and guiding behavior in particular ways (Walters, 2004). Today, 'homeland security' has become the anchor for a powerful normative discourse, scripted and manipulated by authors of statecraft.

Portrayed as necessary for protecting the (white) American nation, (heterosexual) family, and home, immigration and border regulation are integral components of homeland security. Importantly, homeland security is understood in opposition to the excludable foreigner, a role which in contemporary times is easily filled by the figure of the immigrant (Honig, 1998). While the new dominance of homeland security discourse can in many ways be understood as an ideological replacement for Cold War anticommunism (De Genova, 2009), unique to this rhetoric is the way in which it exists in juxtaposition to a new sense of insecurity derived from the fear of the 'other' within US borders (Ackleson, 2005; De Genova, 2009; Kaplan, 2003). Immigrants are, therefore, always already othered by and instill a sense of insecurity in Americans by virtue of the "geographical transgression" implied by their very presence in a particular territory (Nevins, 2010, page 154). Working in tandem with this sense of insecurity, the concept of a homeland invokes a place of belonging in which all are not included--an exclusive notion of home (Kaplan, 2003). As Hyndman and Mountz (2008, page 255) write, "the nationalistic production of home requires a constitutive outside, something against which home is defined. Migrants occupy these spheres 'outside' national belonging." Homeland therefore implies opposition to the foreign, and "has an exclusionary effect that underwrites a resurgent nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment and policy" (Kaplan, 2003, page 87). What is more, by implicitly differentiating between native-born Americans and those whose 'true' home is foreign, the homeland is a racialized category, adding another marker for differentiating the other (Kaplan, 2003; Nevins, 2008).

Numerous critical security scholars have noted the importance of performance to contemporary processes of securitization, drawing on Butler's (1990; 1993) development of the concept of performativity in relation to gender. Butler emphasizes the fundamentally constitutive role of discourse in the realization of gender, or how the continuous repetition of particular discourses and accompanying actions effectively produces and reinforces existing gender imaginaries. In other words, "discourses constitute the objects of which they speak" (Bialasiewicz et al, 2007, page 406). (1) Political geographers have extended ideas of performativity to studies of the contemporary security milieu. Bialasiewicz et al (2007, page 411), for example, emphasize the performative nature of US security strategy in its power to shape imaginative geographies by "specifying the ways 'the world is' and, in so doing, actively (re)making that same world." Salter discusses the formal, practical, and popular performance of the border in spaces both at and removed from actual territorial borders by states in efforts to articulate sovereign claims (Johnson et al, 2011). Understanding discourse to be a "medium through which social relations are both reproduced and changed", Martin and Simon (2008, page 284) frame state planning statements and documents as performative. Mountz (2010, page 58) examines the important role immigration bureaucracy employees in Canada play in performing the state as they deal with constructed crises in human smuggling, arguing that "The state becomes a series of performances and practices that involve negotiations and power plays." (2)

Here, I draw attention to the performative power of immigration enforcement in processes of securitization. Given the embedded centrality of the excludable foreigner to imaginaries of home, post-9/11 performances of homeland security have worked to legitimate increasingly harsh immigration and border enforcement actions, even as claims that these actions prevent terrorist acts are unsubstantiated (Mountz, 2003; 2010; Nevins, 2008). As central components of the US immigration enforcement regime, detention and deportation are critical to the performance of homeland security--as evidenced in the contemporary precipitous increase in their use. Foundations of today's detention system were established in the mid-1990s, an initial shift to confinement that can be partially understood as an extension of trends in mass incarceration (Welch and Schuster, 2005). (3) In 1994 approximately 5500 individuals were detained (Dow, 2004) and 40000 deported (Hagan et al, 2008). In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, however, detention and deportation were centered in 'anti-terrorism' legislation, as immigration law was wielded as a primary tool in the 'war on terror' (Chacon, 2007; Coleman, 2007; Miller, 2003). Laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, and the REAL ID Act of 2005 have further expanded governmental capabilities to detain and deport immigrants (Dow, 2004; Haddal and Siskin, 2010; Hernandez, 2008; Siskin et al, 2006). The effects of these laws can be seen in the 2011 detention of approximately 429000 people and deportations of over 332000 (Office of Immigration Statistics, 2012). (4)

This paper brings together the concepts of performativity and governmentality to understand the enactment and power of homeland security imaginaries. I make an argument for seeing the performances of homeland security through detention and deportation as critically linked to the governmentalized control of populations. According to Foucault (1979; 1991), the state manages populations through processes of classification. These processes of classification operate as techniques of governmentality, through which individuals act in particular ways without the government overtly pressuring them to do so. The disciplinary effects of immigration law on immigrants have been well discussed, and detention and deportation have been shown to be critical elements in the assertion of social control over racialized, criminalized immigrants (Coleman, 2008; Coutin 2010; De Genova, 2004; Kanstroom, 2007; Mountz et al, 2013; Nevins, 2010; Varsanyi, 2008). Coleman (2008) posits that deportation can be seen as a Foucauldian, biopolitical mode of governance of immigrants. A technique of the spectacular enforcement of immigration law, it "performs the 'everywhereness' of the immigration bureaucracy" (page 1110) and operates by placing immigrants on "perpetual probation" (page 1109). While the actual number of deportees is small in comparison to the total number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States [around 11.7 million in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center (2013)], the ever-present threat of deportation generally prevents immigrant laborers from agitating for higher wages and improved work conditions. As De Genova (2004, page 161) contends, "some are deported in order that most may ultimately remain (undeported)--as workers, whose particular migrant status has been rendered 'illegal'." (5) Fears regarding detention and deportation also generally shadow and shape immigrant mobilities, behaviors, and imaginaries of the future (Coutin, 2010, Hernandez, 2008, Mountz et al, 2012).

I extend this work to suggest that while detention and deportation work directly--intimately, even--on immigrant bodies by forcing them into and out of certain places (into sites of detention and out of US territory), these practices simultaneously work to influence nonimmigrant imaginaries of immigrants and immigrants' relationship with national territory, and to provide an 'other' against which a homeland is defined (Hyndman and Mountz, 2008; Kaplan, 2003). The dehumanization of racialized immigrants performed by incarcerating and expelling them reinforces nonimmigrant perceptions of immigrants as outsiders and criminals and heightens nonimmigrants' sense that national security is endangered (Chacon, 2007; Coleman, 2008; Mainwaring, 2012; Mountz et al, 2013). As Mountz et al (2013, page 527, emphasis in original) write, "Criminalizing migrants invokes a circular rationale that legitimizes detention: migrants might be criminals, necessitating detention; migrants must be criminals, because they are detained." These enforcement practices can be seen as a strategic spectacle of enforcement, useful for reassuring the anxious public that something is being done to address their racialized security concerns. Detention and deportation can therefore be understood as performances enacted to exert control over multiple populations simultaneously. Populations already discussed are immigrants and nervous publics. Here, I contend that we must also take into account the space created for the affirmation of imaginaries of homeland security from the ground up--through the experiences of detention system personnel. Examination of the performances imposed upon and extracted from non-immigrants who come into contact with targeted immigrants offers another important window through which to understand the construction of homeland security imaginaries. Through attention to the detention and deportation apparatus, detention centers, and conditions experienced by detained migrants (and witnessed and policed by non-immigrants), I also emphasize the performative power not just of discourse and accompanying actions, but also of space itself (Gregson and Rose, 2000). In the following section, I review literature that provides the methodological grounding for such an examination.

Epistemological approaches to detention and deportation

The expansion of US detention and deportation capacities is given priority in most government plans for immigration enforcement in the United States, with the specter of homeland security figuring prominently in policy making and debate regarding such expansion. Actual experiences and procedures within the detention and deportation apparatus itself, however, are largely removed from public view and discussion. The relative opacity of this system provokes the question of how one may study the performance of homeland security inside the detention and deportation system. In this paper I draw on the work of scholars who have employed ethnographic methods to break down information barriers around immigration enforcement bureaucracies. Collectively, their work provides an epistemological framework for my own exploration of the role of employees inside the system.

Mountz (2003; 2010) employs ethnographic methods, particularly participant observation, to analyze the response of Canadian Immigration (CIC) officials to the 1999 arrival of four boats of asylum seekers from China's Fujian province. She found that officials engaged in an intense process of constructing the identity of asylum seekers in particular ways for media and public consumption, drawing on Butler's idea of performativity to argue that in so doing they play an important role in constituting and reifying the state. While officials' responses collectively produced a coherent narrative regarding asylum seekers, Mountz emphasizes the significant role of individual subjectivity in shaping state practices. She notes in particular how "various axes of difference and location" as well as processes of racialization and criminalization shaped CIC employees' understandings of refugees and their behavior toward them (Mountz, 2003, page 624; 2010).

Heyman (1995) explores how the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, prior to creation of the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, and ICE as a new branch within DHS) conditioned field officers in training to think of immigrants in particular ways. He argues that the bureaucratic system of INS did important "thought-work" on officers to manufacture a particular "worldview" in which contradictory policies seem coherent and rational. He writes (1995, page 263), "Bureaucratic thought-work thus locates an inevitable struggle: bureaucratic workers must think for themselves because of the nature of their tasks, yet they must be controlled as thinkers in order to ensure the regular production of control duties." Heyman found that one consequence of this thought-work is that officers see migrants with potentially legitimate rights claims as "logistical problems" (page 269), instead of as people deserving assistance, and he identifies dehumanization as a central component of discourse about immigration.

Gill (2009a; 2009b) and Hall (2010) both employ ethnographic research methods to dissect the actions and perceptions of personnel within detention centers in the United Kingdom. In a pair of articles Gill draws on ideas of governmentality to argue that the opinions and actions of those who work with detained asylum seekers are shaped in important ways by how the detention estate presents the asylum seekers to them. In one article Gill focuses on how the frequent transfers of detained asylum seekers work as a crucial "process of representation" (2009a, page 186), suggesting that the forced mobility of migrants acts as a governmental technique on activists and detention center managers in positions of power from which they could potentially provide assistance. He contends that "subjective depictions of asylum seekers exert a particular type of power over these influential actors, which causes them to treat asylum seekers in different ways without forcing them or overtly incentivizing them to do so" (Gill, 2009a, page 187). The representation of asylum seekers as "transient and fleeting" (2009a, page 187), Gill found, thus negatively impacts the experiences of detainees as well as their detention outcomes. In a second article (2009b), Gill considers the "presentational power" of spatial as well as temporal aspects of detention. His analysis of temporal factors illustrates how the pressures on a range of players within the detention estate to process ever greater numbers of asylum seekers in shorter periods of time negatively impact these players' perceptions of and interactions with asylum seekers. Gill's attention to space also emphasizes ways in which asylum seekers are produced as "a separate and threatening category" (2009b, page 225) to employees through aggressive "micro-spatial security measures" (2009b, page 226), such as separate queues, and screens between asylum seekers and interviewers.

Hall's (2010) scholarship highlights the importance of emotion as an analytical tool in the examination of everyday life in a migrant detention center. She argues that detainees' experiences are critically determined by staff dispositions toward them, which are best understood through attention to staff emotions. Hall (2010, page 887) explains, "emotions are essentially cognitive in nature, linked to the way in which an acting subject makes sense of the world, and shapes that sense-making process in turn" (cf Bondi et al, 2005). Employees' association of migrants with illegality and immorality contribute to a belief that migrants are inherently capable of deception or even violence. Hall (drawing on Ahmed, 2004) remarks on the corresponding manufacture of fear and contempt for officers in a UK detention center (page 889). Feelings of contempt toward detainees, Hall contends, are a product of employees' ideas of moral worth juxtaposed with the illegality stamped on migrant bodies by virtue of their detention.

The work of these scholars emphasizes the profound importance of perceptions and interactions within immigration enforcement apparatuses. It becomes clear that the thoughts, feelings, and actions of personnel hold critical performative power, capable of both creating and reinforcing state discourses, racialized hierarchies, and particular securitized imaginaries. Building on this work, I focus on how the conditions of detention together with powerful discourses collectively operate as a process of representation. I posit that narratives of homeland security manufacture continuity in employees' "worldview" (Heyman, 1995) and corresponding actions despite a diversity of backgrounds and individual influences. Though federal detention policy has been implemented unevenly and can vary significantly according to facility (Hernandez, 2008; Hiemstra, 2013), personal interactions within the system exhibit identifiable, similar characteristics that can be, I suggest, traced to the power of homeland security discourse in popular imagination. While there are exceptions, employees' individual decisions and actions often convey a perception of migrants as outsiders and criminals or, at least, individuals whose experiences of forced containment and likely expulsion do not merit exceptional concern or action. The detention system further disciplines employee behaviors by distancing and dehumanizing detainees in ways that tend to preclude the formation of positive perceptions and relationships. The empirical section below reveals US detention centers and offices to be sites for the intimate construction and reinforcement of securitized imaginaries of immigrants.

Methods for studying the US detention and deportation system

While my methodology is fundamentally informed by the work of the scholars profiled above, taking the US's massive and notoriously opaque detention and deportation apparatus as my object of study requires a unique approach. Instead of beginning my ethnography with enforcement personnel working at a specific location in a migrant destination country, I began my investigation in a country of migrant origin, with detained migrants' families and migrants after their deportation. This approach was important for three primary reasons. First, it provided a means to circumvent the difficult barriers typically protecting the contemporary US system from outsider access. Second, the approach allowed me to look broadly at the entirety of the vast detention apparatus, instead of at a single or limited number of facilities. Third, entering the system from the experiences of detainees' families and deportees provided understanding of the uneven, unpredictable, and complicated organization and operation of US detention, including ways in which practices can vary widely between types of facilities, offices, and regions. This methodological approach is significant for the study of detention and deportation practices, providing a method for accessing the typically obfuscated system.

As outlined at the beginning of this paper, my entry to US detention transpired in the course of volunteer work in Ecuador as I attempted to gain information for families of detained migrants. As a component of the participant observation conducted over the course of nine months in the city of Cuenca--a hub of Ecuadorian migration--I made hundreds of phone calls on behalf of over eighty-five families regarding the location of detainees, case specifics, and deportation details. During these calls, I primarily spoke with people who appeared to be in administrative positions, either working directly for ICE, including ICE officers in nonfield positions, or on behalf of companies or prisons contracted by ICE. My sense is that most of these individuals rarely interacted directly with detainees. Through semistructured interviews with forty deportees, I was also able to sketch interactions between migrants and detention system personnel, such as ICE officials, facility guards, and facility operations staff, as well as gather additional information about migrants' experiences of detention and deportation, and migrants' interactions with system personnel. While I was not physically inside facilities, layering these two data sources allowed me to piece together a composite--and, I believe, fairly representative--picture of employees' general perspectives by noting repeated similarities among deportees' accounts and my calls with employees. The patterns that emerged, regarding how the detention system works and the roles of employees, facilitate the sketching of probable worldviews held by employees. Such a methodological approach offers a strategy for shredding secrecy surrounding the inner workings of detention and other obscured objects of study, short of (often impossible) direct access. As the section below details, the detention system itself functions in a way that corroborates employees' homeland security-driven conceptualizations such that a rigid boundary between employees and detainees is largely maintained throughout the system, regardless of the degree of personal interaction.

Homeland security narratives, detention system operation, and the disciplining of employees

The detention system constructs multiple spaces in which governmentalized performances of security and insecurity become visible. Through what they witness in the course of their employment, I contend, employees' sense of insecurity is deepened in ways that lend credibility to, and encourage acceptance of, the concept of homeland security. In other words, the detention system is structured in such a way as to require employees to perceive detainees as sources of insecurity. An important product of the social control work being done is a haunting sense of ontological insecurity for employees. Ontological security, as defined by Giddens (1991), is the sense of stability an individual achieves through continuity and order. Ontological insecurity as I utilize it here is the sense of instability and perhaps even fear provoked by feelings of uncertainty and the perception of disorder. (6) The central argument of this paper is that employees' sense of insecurity is given form and substance through the interplay of two primary factors: discourses of homeland security and the detention system's structure and operation. To facilitate analysis, however, I first look at these factors separately before examining them in tandem.

Influence of narratives of homeland security

Employees' scriptings (the ways in which they think about, perceive, and interpret actions) of detainees are often critically shaped prior to employment in the detention system. As members of the general public, detention system employees (whatever their particular job) do not shed their preexisting notions of immigrants upon beginning their employment (Mountz, 2010). These notions are likely molded by policies and pervasive discourses in which migrants are racialized, criminalized, and painted as dangerous, threatening outsiders (Hall, 2010; Mountz, 2010). Then, such perceptions are seemingly bolstered by the information contained in written files in which migrants are categorized as, for example, 'illegal aliens', 'criminal aliens', or perhaps 'aggravated felons', terms laden with exaggerated meaning regarding a migrant's criminality (Coleman, 2008; Miller, 2003; Nevins, 2010). These typically negative narratives regarding immigrants are absorbed by detention system employees in ways that shape how they perceive detainees. Hall (2010, page 886), following Nussbaum (2001), asserts that "emotions are responses to the perception of value." As perpetual outsiders, migrants are viewed as unfamiliar; and as illegal bodies they are inherently capable of wrongdoing (Hall, 2010). Even if detainees are not viewed wholly negatively by employees, they are discursively constructed as bodies that are appropriately contained and treated differently from US citizens.

Accordingly, spaces in which employees' emotions and behavior are critically influenced are in evidence throughout the detention system, a point perhaps most easily distilled from deportees' accounts of personal interactions in which employees somehow convey an unfavorable assessment of detainees' worth. Interviewee Carlos reported that guards only let detainees watch TV channels in English: "They said to us that we were stupid, that why would we come here if we don't know English." Interactions can also exhibit the perception that migrants "get what they deserve" for their illegal presence in the United States. Fernando reported that after the car he was in flipped over during the Border Patrol's effort to stop it, his eye was bloody and clearly injured. He recalled, "We were taken first to Migration, even though some of us were obviously hurt. Migration didn't pay attention to our injuries, saying 'It's your fault you're hurt.'" Such responses further illustrate a devaluation of detainees' needs.

Employees' responses to my attempts to obtain information about detainees can be interpreted as corroborating negative scriptings. In the course of dozens of phone interactions, it was clear that many employees were unwilling to invest time into obtaining information for detainees' family members. While this may be attributed to limited time or knowledge regarding how to effectively search computer databases, I suggest that lackluster responses were also conditioned by dominant tropes regarding the immorality and dishonesty of migrants. For example, people from whom I requested information often stated that migrants "usually lie" about their names and other information, so it would be impossible to find them. While this perception may be based on previous experience, it is also symptomatic of the "thought-work" (Heyman, 1995) exercised upon employees within the detention system.

Employees' replies to requests for specific information regarding migrants' scheduled deportation dates also demonstrate how processes of dehumanization are woven into the routine operation of the detention system (7) Though some personnel did not hesitate to give a specific date, others refused. If asked why, some people replied that it was policy. One response is particularly interesting to consider.

"The woman I talked to then did confirm that Patricia is there, but would give me no information about when she was coming. She said ... that information is 'confidential for the safety of the officer, I said, 'ICE officers?' and she said 'the officers who travel with them'. I said, "Like, their safety on the plane?" And she said, 'well, whatever scenario you can imagine, there are many possible reasons' (research journal, 25 June 2009).

This reply could insinuate that such information would put people at risk, and indicate a perception that detainees are threatening bodies, to be contained. For some employees, perhaps, the conceptualization of migrants as threats to the safety of the homeland may be a constant undercurrent in their daily work.

Additionally, as Hall (2010, page 890) notes, "In the [detention center], the suspicion of the war on terror becomes attentiveness to individual bodies." Hall (page 890) observed that for officers at a UK detention center, not knowing detainees' history and background, or the verity of a detainee's story, is profoundly unsettling and manifests as a "general hypervigilance". In addition, the lens of suspicion through which employees view migrants produces a sense not only of difference but also of danger. Hall (page 891, emphasis in the original) argues that in the detention center where she conducted research,

"the officers' hypervigilance creates distance from the men in their care and control, and etches (and re-etches) the difference between citizens and others. The detainees become bodies in time and space, objects to be tracked and scrutinised, surfaces which emotions inscribe, and to which are attached certain traits (trouble, compliant, disruptive). The detainee as person falls away" (see also Dow, 2004).

Accounts from my interviewees confirm a parallel distrust and vigilance, as all detainees are regarded with suspicion and managed accordingly. In the US detention system, for example, migrants are routinely shackled for any kind of mobility, such as in transfers or for court appointments. As Fernando said, "For everything, they cuff us feet, hands, and waist. They treat us like criminals." Every aspect of detainees' daily routines and spaces is subject to surveillance. Many facilities have video cameras in all rooms, and there are frequent cell checks and head counts. For example, Elsa recalled, "Frequently they came by, starting in the early morning, [and said] 'Count! 'And you have to stand up so that they can count you." Ana Lucia was upset because guards did not let her close stall doors when using the bathroom. Many interviewees indicated that they were constantly suspected of wanting to escape. Rodrigo remarked that one facility was particularly nice because there were windows and you could look outside. "Except", he added, "if you looked for too long, the guards got mad and said you were thinking about escaping." Regardless of the reasons behind confinement, those confined become objects of suspicion.

Influence of system structure and operation

If detention system employees approach their jobs already scripting migrants as threatening, dangerously mobile, devious, unworthy, or even simply as 'less than' citizens, the system's seemingly chaotic structure and operation easily works to confirm such perceptions. As Mountz et al (2013, page 531) write, "Spaces of detention ... become important and productive locations for affixing categories of exclusion to migrants' bodies." I now examine three key characteristics of the detention system, tracing ways in which they critically overlap with homeland security narratives to diminish and problematize detainees in employees' eyes.

Inconsistent policies and practices

The post-9/11 frenzied push for greater detention capacity in the United States has resulted in a hastily assembled, piecemeal, and inconsistently regulated system (Hernandez, 2008; Hiemstra, 2013). The detention of 33000 migrants per day is accompanied by a massive bureaucracy, including millions of employees, and a yearly cost of $2 billion (Epstein, 2013). Detainees are held in approximately 250 facilities around the United States (Detention Watch Network, 2013). Approximately 33% of these detainees are in migrant detention centers run by ICE or private companies. The remaining 67% of detained migrants are in county and city jails contracted by ICE to house detained migrants (Detention Watch Network, 2013). Though ICE is the principal orchestrator of migrant detention and deportation, it is not the only one. Migrants can also be in the custody of the Border Patrol, the US Marshalls, or in a facility that is part of the criminal prison system. There are no mandatory rules governing the detention of migrants, only 'recommended guidelines'. (8) While ICE is nominally in control, the often disparate practices of different member agencies and facilities result in a general lack of coordination in policies.

Inconsistency within the detention system weaves together with employees' scripting of migrants to critically influence employees' emotions and behaviors in ways that discipline their responses. Both my phone-conducted searches for migrants and deportees' testimony illustrate that individuals' practices and knowledge sets within the detention system are likewise uneven and unpredictable. Inconsistent and disparate employee responses are demonstrated through the use of 'A Numbers' for identifying migrants. The names and information of any migrants who have ever had contact with the DHS are theoretically entered into a computerized system contained within a number of databases and assigned an Alien Registration Number (A Number). Ideally, if one knows a migrant's A Number, she should be able to call an ICE office or detention facility and obtain information regarding the migrant. (9) However, several issues foil the easy attainment of information through A Numbers. First, not all facilities within the detention system use A Numbers to identify detained migrants, including many county-run facilities (which constitute more than half of those in the system), preferring instead an internally created numbering system. Second, many family members and advocates attempting to locate and obtain information have no knowledge of a detainee's A Number. If the migrant does manage to communicate outside the detention facility, calls are often abbreviated and the migrant typically does not understand the importance of communicating their A Number, or, often, the family or advocate is entirely unable to communicate with the detainee. Third, policies regarding the use of A Numbers vary tremendously from facility to facility, and even from employee to employee. For example, while it is possible to query the computerized database for migrants using other data (such as name, date of birth, and country of origin) some employees with whom I spoke refused to do so, stating that A Numbers were required. On the other hand, some employees refused to divulge information even with A Numbers, stating that they were for internal use only, that any information had to be communicated by detainees themselves, or that they did not know how to do so. Interestingly, explanations of policies can vary within a facility, depending on the employee with whom one speaks. Such inconsistency was evident throughout the detention system as a whole.

The operation of the detention and deportation system itself appeared to aggravate some employees. For instance, on one occasion when no one at the Varick Street detention facility in Manhattan answered the phone, I called another ICE office in New York state. I explained to the woman who answered that I was trying to verify if an Ecuadorian migrant was in Varick Street but could get no response. She replied that she had taken numerous calls because people at Varick Street were not doing their job, so now "I have to do mine plus theirs." On another occasion, at the suggestion of an ICE officer I called a county prison where a migrant was detained. The following excerpt from my research journal on 21 July, 2010 describes that call:

"I called ... County Prison and talked to someone in Records who was absolutely livid--angry that someone in ICE had told me to call there. 'We only give them beds, we have no information on them. If someone in INS is telling you to call us, they are just pushing you off. Who told you to call me? I really want to know!'"

Exchanges such as these indicate tense relationships among the various components of the detention and deportation system. They also illustrate that, despite the tremendous power over information that immigration personnel have, they often feel frustrated and powerless themselves (Mountz, 2010). These emotions may influence not only their responses to search requests, but also their perceptions of the system and migrants caught within it. If general detention system operation generates feelings of personal insecurity for employees, migrants, inextricably embedded in the system as they are, are conceptually linked to these feelings. While I do not claim that employees necessarily transfer work-related frustration to detainees, employee dissatisfaction may contribute to the perception of immigrants as a problem.

Conditions of detention

As places in which personnel can come into close contact with migrants, detention facilities become sites where "hegemonic geopolitical discourse is not only hierarchically translated into everyday life, but also (re)produced through banal, embodied experiences and practices" (Haldrup et al, 2008, page 118). As Gill (2009b) found with asylum seekers in the UK, conditions routinely imposed upon detainees by the detention system dehumanize and objectify detainees in employees' eyes. In most cases, immediately upon detention detainees' bodies are visibly marked as criminal. They must surrender personal clothing and don facility uniforms, and they are identified by numbers instead of names. Jorge described the bracelet stamped with his A Number, name, date of capture, home country, and a miniature photograph: "[It was] a plastic strip attached with two little metal pieces, very secure, you can't take it off, it can only be cut off with scissors." Thus, many aspects of migrants' appearance that express their individuality and personhood are removed, and the migrant becomes one body among many others. The common dearth of translation services may mean that personnel cannot communicate clearly with detainees, further marking them as unknowable and different. Furthermore, employees rarely have the opportunity to see detainees as parts of family units. This is due in part to the fact that many migrants en route travel alone, and because undocumented family members would risk capture if they visited. It is also due to the common practice of transferring detainees caught in the US interior (and therefore those most likely to have an established life in the US, including a support network of family and friends) to remote locations where visitation is nearly impossible (Human Rights Watch, 2009; National Immigrant Justice Center, 2010).

Then, the detention system is structured in such a way that anyone with power over detainees can become a "petty sovereign" (Butler, 2004). Guards, in particular, have the power to intervene in and control the spaces and mobilities of detainees through exercising discretion regarding how policies are enacted and rules are enforced (Dow, 2004). Their position allows them to intimately control the everyday realities of detention. As deportee Tulio put it, "they have you, as they say in chess, in check, they have you in check all the time." They may control, for example, the time allotted to consume a meal, the activities in which detainees partake, and access to information. Jose Carlos explained how inmates' success or failure in communicating outside the facility could depend on individual guards' attitudes,

"It is up to [guards], if they feel like it they let you call but if they don't, no. There were a couple who were good, if you wanted to call you asked and they let you. On the other hand when you told others you wanted to call, they said no, no, no, go away and don't bother me, it isn't allowed."

Personnel have the power to make decisions leading to the neglect of detainees' basic corporeal needs. For example, detainees often suffer from hunger due to both insufficient and inedible food. Manuel, who reported he went from 220 to 175 pounds over the course of three months of detention, said, "It is a jail, and of course they cannot serve food made to order. But the food caused trauma!" Deportees complained of burned and spoiled food. Tommy explained, "they gave us food, but like you would give to a dog.... No one liked it but from hunger one had to eat, even rotten, bad food. Some people got sick." Interviewees described unhygienic conditions, such as filthy bathrooms, unwashed bedding and clothes, and not being allowed to bathe for extended periods. Interviewee Carlos, for example, was upset by the condition of his blankets. "They would not wash the blankets for us.... I was there three months and they never let me wash them. I went to leave them in the laundry, but they said no, that the chief has said that those can't be washed.... Sometimes that caused allergies, imagine the dirt that they collect in three months!" Many deportees reported being held in uncomfortably cold rooms without sufficient clothing at some point during their detention. Tulio recounted, "Something that is really hard ... twenty-four hours a day it is like being in a restaurant freezer. It's something that is unbearable, and most people get sick." These accounts from my data corroborate the findings of recent scholarly work, reports by human rights organizations, and investigative journalism pieces (see, for example, ACLU, 2011; Barry, 2009; Bernstein, 2010a; 2010b; Dow, 2004; Golash-Boza, 2010; Nguyen, 2005; Welch, 2002; Wood, 2011). Deportees frequently recounted a persistent disregard of their routine medical care, and a failure to respond to medical situations until they became urgent. Carlos stated,

"People can die [in detention]. There was a guy suffering from seizures, three months he was having seizures. They came and saw him, didn't do anything, they saw him a second time, the third time, because they thought it was more serious because the guy had started to bite his tongue until it bled. Only then did they take him to the doctor, because they saw it was a serious thing."

My findings as well as numerous reports provide evidence of inadequate medical care in detention facilities, even resulting in the deaths of detainees (ACLU, 2011; Bernstein, 2010a; Dow, 2004). Whether due to established facility practices, or individual choice, such behaviors suggest an ingrained culture among system employees of disbelieving detainees, doubting their credibility, and devaluing their needs, further reflecting the coming together of narratives dehumanizing migrants and the chaotic nature of the detention system.

High volume and mobility

Finally, as Gill (2009a; 2009b) found in the UK detention estate, the high degree of mobility forced on detainees dehumanizes and distances them in the eyes of system personnel. Migrants detained in the United States are routinely transferred between facilities multiple times (Human Rights Watch, 2009; National Immigrant Justice Center, 2010). The average number of facilities through which my interviewees passed was 3.4, while some were detained in as many as eight facilities. I have discussed the effect of this mobility from the perspective of detainees elsewhere (Hiemstra, 2012; 2013), but here I emphasize the disciplinary impact of this mobility for system employees. Dehumanization is already central to public discourse regarding immigrants (Golash-Boza, 2009; Heyman, 1995). As in Gill's (2009a; 2009b) research, the frequent transfers of detained migrants undermine relationships in detention and negatively impact employees' potential willingness to help. Even if detainees have a moving story, employees become numb to the relentless succession of crises.

The following is an excerpt from my research journal on 21 May 2009, when I called a detention facility:

"The woman I talked to was nice, but couldn't give me any more info. [She said] 'All we do is house them and feed them ... we take them to court when Immigration tells us to. My computer doesn't have any of that information on there.'"

In the course of explaining that her facility did not hold migrants overnight, another staff member said, "we ship them, send them out to smaller centers, and then depending on where they are is where their cases are managed" (research journal, 1 July 2009). Such communications illustrate how, for system employees, migrants are reduced to numbers moving through the system, 'bodies' without personal stories or a future. Employees become anesthetized by the never-ending volume of detainees, as one officer's attempt at levity illustrates. I wrote,

"[He said] 'The system is so slow today. But really, it's going through millions of names.' He looked for and found two different [Ecuadorian women named] Mercedes for me, and joked, 'I guess the Mercedes like to get caught!"' (research journal, 22 January 2009).

An act of capture that means the beginning of a family's anxiety can also be a source of humor for a courteous bureaucrat. These phone interactions exemplify how the expansive, chaotic detention system objectifies and homogenizes detainees in the minds of system personnel. The high volume of migrants moving through any given facility coalesces with homeland security narratives to support negative scripting. In this scripting, at best detainees may be perceived merely as unlucky, nameless, unknowable outsiders who will inevitably be removed from a place to which they do not belong. At worst, detainees are perceived as illegally--even dangerously--mobile, dehumanized, morally inferior bodies to be 'shipped out.' In either scenario, the detention system is structured in such a way that employees are likely to associate detained migrants with instability and disorder.


This paper has examined the inherently performative nature of the concept of homeland security, with a focus on the role played by the United States' vast immigrant detention system in constructing the migrant as outsider. Arguments about the governmentalized social control functions embedded in immigration enforcement bureaucracies are not new. What I contribute to these arguments is attention to the dynamic nexus of narratives of homeland security with the organization of the detention and deportation system. It is at this nexus, I suggest, that employees experience a heightened sense of insecurity which disciplines their emotions and behavior concerning detainees. Although federal detention policy has been implemented unevenly across facilities, employees' perceptions of migrants exhibit a manufactured "worldview" in Heyman's (1995) terminology. Pervasive discourses of homeland security together with the architecture of the detention apparatus coalesce in employees' worldviews to profoundly dehumanize migrants, effectively erasing the structural reasons for migration and undermining the development of positive relationships. Indeed, the structure and modus operandi of the detention system weave together with preconditioned anxiety and unease regarding contemporary times. The detention process itself naturalizes "illegality" in ways that seem to legitimate the poor conditions of migrant detention (Hernandez, 2008, page 53). It can thus become intuitive for people with whom detainees interact to see them as nameless, othered, and suspect bodies, easing doubts and pangs of conscience that they may have regarding treatment to which detainees are subjected (Hall, 2010). After all, they may reason, such conditions are justified by migrants' outsider status, presumed guilt, or immorality. Additionally, even sympathetic employees may realize that their own financial welfare is dependent on the hardship of detainees.

Employees' feelings of uncertainty, confusion, or outright distrust and fear work to embed migrants in employees' perceptions of ontological insecurity. This insecurity then interacts recursively to perpetuate discourses of homeland security, including the paradoxically central role of the othered migrant as a metric for determining belonging. Employees' behaviors and interactions with detainees thus provide a space for the repetitive performance of migrants as outsiders. As employees negotiate a never-ending stream of detained migrants, detention and deportation become routine practices, normalized to the degree that they become banal (Bigo, 2007; Gill, 2009a; Haldrup et al, 2008; Sidaway, 2003). As Hall (2010, page 894) contends, "staff at the grassroots matter because the task falls to them to make meaningful (in mundane daily routines) the cultural, social and political distinctions between citizen and other." Likewise, the actions of US detention personnel can be understood as daily performances of nation-building (Hall, 2010; Heyman, 1995; Mountz, 2003; 2010).

The detention system, then, is integral to the governmentalized practices and performances sustaining discourses and imaginaries of homeland security. Places of detention are physical manifestations of policy makers' attempts to control, and their operation requires individual actors who feel ontologically insecure, or at least those who are willing to accept migrants' dehumanization in exchange for their own overall well-being. The detention system can only continue to function, therefore, if its employees personally invest in negative views of immigrants.

This conclusion leads to the possibility that some potential for disrupting homeland security imaginaries lies in altering this system in ways that transform microscale perceptions and relationships. Butler (1990; 1993) suggests the transformative potential of even slight adjustments made to repeated performances of stylized discourses and actions for shifting imaginaries of gender. Geographers Gregson and Rose (2000) extend this idea to include spaces in which particular imaginaries are performatively realized. Here, I call for attention to the transformative potential of both discourses regarding, and spaces of, detention, as sites for the production and reification of difference based on imaginaries of security. Butler (2004, page 42) points to the fundamental importance of the recognition of shared "corporeal vulnerability" for humanizing the other. Perhaps, then, an opportunity for transforming negative scripting of migrants lies in creating spaces that facilitate recognition of shared vulnerabilities, spaces where employees can perform a different relationship with migrants and break previous patterns. Following this logic, creating space for the rehumanization of detained migrants could lay important groundwork for destabilizing existing ontologies of homeland security. As Mountz (2003, page 640) asserts, "Within the intricate and intimate connections among institutional subjects lies potential for social change." Hall (2010, page 294) notes the disruptive potential of compassion, documenting instances of sympathy, empathy, and assistance extended by officers. Similarly, in my research, the behavior and emotions of system employees did not reflect uniform discipline. For example, interviewees' mentions of memorably helpful individuals illustrate that the potential does exist for more compassionate, personal relationships. Daniela recalled the person who facilitated her deportation,

"I said to her, 'please, help me, I can't stay in here anymore, I am desperate, I am getting so many headaches and they already took me to the medical department', ... So she said to me, 'Dear, I am going to help you, give me your name, all your information.'... Right away she sent things, and [then] told me, 'your papers arrived, and I am going to facilitate things so that you leave this very week.'"

While more the exception than the norm, additional examples did arise.

Perhaps, then, an opportunity for initiating a shift in the conceptualization of migrant as outsider, and for rupturing the association of migrants with insecurity, lies in creating space for more positive performances in the immigration enforcement apparatus. The ideal approach would involve a shift away from detention altogether, to the numerous, already proven effective alternatives to detention (such as electronic monitoring, telephone reporting, and participation with community-based groups) (Detention Watch Network, 2014). While the current political climate makes this scenario unlikely, there are more immediate changes possible within the existing detention system. Positively altering spaces of detention would entail advocating for the strict monitoring and enforcement of system-wide standards regarding operation and organization, as well as standards regarding the appropriate, compassionate treatment of all detainees. Consistently enforced regulations governing more humane conditions would transform the intimate conditions of detention: allowing detainees to wear personal clothing, facilitating family contact, instituting system-wide standards regarding food quality and medical care. It would involve dramatically curtailing detainee transfers, particularly to remote locations. Such proposals may, at first glance, appear inconsequential. This research, however, emphasizes the criticality of the intimate interplay of discourse, space, and personal experience. The US detention system includes millions of employees across the country. The fostering of alternate imaginaries of immigrants among these employees could contribute to shifting governmentalized performances at the heart of currently dominant tropes of homeland security.

doi: 10.1068/d13021p

Acknowledgements. The author sincerely thanks Kate Coddington, Lauren Martin, Liz Montegary, and two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and constructive suggestions. Many thanks, too, to Carmen Alvarado at the Casa del Migrante and detainees' family members and deportees in Cuenca, Ecuador. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (DDR1 #0802801).


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Nancy Hiemstra

Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory, Stony Brook University, 100 Nicolls Road, Humanities Building Room 2068, Stony Brook, NY 11794-5355, USA; e-mail:

Received: 30 April 2013; in revised form 19 February 2014; published online 27 June 2014

(1) While a discussion of the role of individual subjectivity and agency in performativity is outside the scope of this paper, there have been numerous worthwhile discussion in geographical literatures. See, for example, Jeffrey (2013), Nelson (1999), Bialesewicz et al (2007).

(2) Jeffrey (2013) also explores the role of performance in the production of state power, in relation to state-building, sovereignty, and democracy in Bosnia and Herzogovina.

(3) In 1996 two laws (the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act) were passed, both of which contained provisions that greatly expanded the legal bases for detention and deportation.

(4) An additional 324000 individuals were returned to their country of origin without an official removal order.

(5) As I have argued elsewhere, illegality can also be understood as operating as a technique of neoliberal governmentality, particularly at the local scale, working to mask contradictions of the current neoliberal economic order and disciplining immigrant labor (Hiemstra, 2010).

(6) See Katz (2007, pages 358-359) for additional discussion of ontological security.

(7) Communication of detailed information regarding arrival date, time, and location are important for families and deportees, both for families' desires to welcome returned migrants and to prevent desperate, if not even dangerous, situations for those returning without resources to make the often long journey from the place of arrival to their family's home.

(8) Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) were established in 2008 and revised in 2011. Implementation of the PBNDS throughout detention facilities has been slow, is still incomplete, and is unevely monitored.

(9) In 2010 the Online Detainee Locator System (ODLS) was created, which theoretically allows one to use A Numbers on a website to obtain information. For a variety of reasons, however, use of ODLS does not consistently facilitate family members' attempts to acquire information.
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Date:Aug 1, 2014
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